British Parliament
"Blowing up the new opposition." British Parliament, 1806.Photo credit: Walker / Library of Congress

Devastatingly accurate comments on democracy in America — and so relevant it’s scary!

When the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defined democracy, he wrote that, in such a system, “The poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.”

Now, some 2,400 years later, he would surely be dismayed by the state of democracy. Globally, it is in retreat; in the US, it is under attack; and the rich have found a way to consolidate power while leaving the poor behind.

Democracy’s demise — and what can be done about it — has been the subject of many books. These include Threat to Democracy: The Appeal of Authoritarianism in an Age; Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of AuthoritarianismFour Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy; Democracy Under Threat; How Democracies Die; and more. 

Just last week, another one was published by somebody who had a front-row seat to how the US government tried to subvert democracy. The author is Fiona Hill, the foreign policy expert who testified in former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial (notably, the subject of both of these trials was Trump’s attempts to subvert democracy).

The book’s title is poignant: There is Nothing for You Here. The publisher explains the title’s origin: 

Fiona Hill grew up in a world of terminal decay. The last of the local mines had closed, businesses were shuttering, and despair was etched in the faces around her. Her father urged her to get out of their blighted corner of northern England: “There is nothing for you here, pet,” he said.  

Hill believes that “declining opportunity has set America on the grim path of modern Russia.”  

Her warning comes at a time when it is clear that the US was not far from experiencing a coup last year. In addition, many GOP-led states are passing new voting restrictions in an effort to further disenfranchise those who disagree with them.

In Congress, Democrats have drafted a plan to safeguard US democracy, but it is facing opposition, not just from Republicans, but even from some in their own ranks.

All of this is rather bleak, which is why it is important to keep in mind how precious democracy is. For this reason, we are once again presenting a collection of quotes on democracy — they are a reminder of why it is worth fighting for.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said something in 1938 that may no longer be true, or so it seems on bad days:

Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.

No “alien power over us”? Because Russia has influenced US elections, some Americans feel that indeed an alien power is over them. A more realistic fear is that voters are not the “ultimate rulers” of the country because of the virulent spread of voter suppression, and something related that is just as dangerous: Apathy.

Below are some observations that are both horrible and wonderful — and they may cure your apathy, at least for a while.

Introduction by Milicent Cranor

But somebody hacked into the voting booth in 90 minutes. I think last year, a 16-year-old got in there in 45 minutes, and made the voting booth play a song … You turn the voting booth into a jukebox in 45 minutes by a 16-year-old? You are telling me we can’t stop Russia? (Bill Maher)

Papers say: “Congress is deadlocked and can’t act.” I think that is the greatest blessing that could befall this country. (Will Rogers)

Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. (James Bovard)

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. (H.L. Mencken)

The Founders, who worried greatly about the vulnerability of democracy to populist demagogues, didn’t envision a President like Trump. (John Cassidy)

They dident [sic] start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover [President Herbert Hoover] was an engineer. He knew that water trickled down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the dryest little spot. But he dident [sic] know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow’s hands. They saved the big banks but the little ones went up the flue. (Will Rogers)

Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few. (George Bernard Shaw)

Brain, n. An apparatus with which we think that we think… In our civilization, and under our republican form of government, intelligence is so highly honored that it is rewarded by exemption from the cares of office. (Ambrose Bierce)

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. (Attributed to Winston S. Churchill)

Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage. (H.L. Mencken)

world's greatest performing monkeys

Signorita Galetti and her troupe of the world’s greatest performing monkeys. Published around 1892. Photo credit: Giacomo Galetti / Library of Congress

The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment. (Robert M. Hutchins)

All the blood is drained out of democracy — it dies — when only half the population votes. (Hunter S. Thompson)

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. (Isaac Asimov)

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of its minorities. (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and nowhere appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty. (John Adams)


Photo credit: OpenCulture

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. (Winston S. Churchill)


  • Milicent Cranor

    Milicent Cranor is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy. She has worked as a creative editor at E.P. Dutton, a comedy ghostwriter, and editor of consequential legal and scientific documents. She has also co-authored numerous peer-reviewed articles for medical journals.

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